TRANSLATED BY ROBIN MYERS
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2020)
“My pen is also a gun that wants to blow up the monovocal, monotonous realities imposed on us by capitalism. I don’t think it’s worth living a life like that; all the depressed CEOs should just kill themselves or move to England. The rest of the world should be intensely ours. … In that intensity, we are able to express the many aspects that sometimes coincide with our own selves. This voice wants to express them all. I like to call it kaleidoscopic.” That’s Chilean writer Mónica Ramón Ríos, describing the chorus of voices in her short story collection, Cars on Fire, masterfully translated by Robin Myers. That chorus of characters, also described as a “riot,” in its sum and through the course of the book, defies borders, fixed locations and identities. Kaleidoscopic intensity is the unifying mantra.
The first third of the book, titled “Obituary,” comprises a virtuosic series of short texts centered around a death. The main characters are often immigrants, and a sense of dislocation is palpable in all. They are short-short stories, all between four and six pages, and each tightly wound; a long exhale follows when each brief episode ends. While they span locations, from Santiago to New Jersey to Prague, they’re bound by a shared tense atmosphere, a fully rendered world, and a circling, wary interest in an act of psychic or physical violence.
The longer stories that follow are more digressive, and at times throw up thorny formal and stylistic challenges. The title story, “Cars on Fire,” is not classifiable by its plot line, but rather wanders in the psyche of its nameless protagonist, a man in Brooklyn obsessed with his Detroit roots, and hints at a missed connection with his neighbor, a Chilean academic. The style is incantatory and weaving. It’s a long story that must be read in a single sitting. Its success depends on the consistency of the style, and this is where translator Robin Myers shines. The man, for example, is always referred to as “this-guy” followed by a qualifier between dashes that charts his internal state: “this-guy — singular, enchained,” “this-guy—chicken skin,” “this-guy—he of the achy ear.” I wondered how “this-guy” could be rendered in Spanish, and how it would work, it reads so naturally in English. There is no interference or static in the text, none of that suspicion that something did not make the journey over from the source Spanish intact.
Also, a 20th-century Latin American lineage can be traced in Ríos’ stories. There is something of Borges in her writer character who seeks out a therapist to “strike the perfect chord in saying what’s never before been said between two people,” and whose many notebooks, hidden behind tiny cabinets in her bedroom, document the same stories “repeated over and over in different syntax, in different words intentionally overlaid with contradictory meanings.” “The Animal Mosaic,” a story of a teenage boy who becomes involved in a religious cult dedicated to merging human and beast through collective mosaic-making projects, has shades of Cortázar’s “School at Night.” But Ríos also makes manifest her chosen ancestry, an international family of women poets, philosophers, and theorists, including Audre Lorde and Julia Kristeva, who contribute to her 21st-century queering of language and form. More regional influences include the Uruguayan poet Marisa di Giorgio, and her monstrous, metamorphosing vegetal forms, and Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. In “The Animal Mosaic,” for example, the teenage boy in the story is grappling with his sexual identity. The cult is interesting to him mostly because of the preacher’s son and his alluring lips. A longer story, “Invocation,” is a stylistic experiment, where the two characters tell their version of their relationship in side-by-side columns, which also reflect their fluctuating gender identities through the course of the narrative, with the two accounts merging on the page at the end.
In terms of its politics, while there are traces of Chilean history, in particular a sense of painful recovery from a militaristic past, the collection is consciously pan-American in its scope. In the story “Dead Men Don’t Rape,” unnamed American politicians give upbeat speeches on white supremacy and “pro-weapon citizens associations,” a menace that threatens the whole world. In “Imprecation,” a two-page opening salvo, male and female names, flesh and land are merged in the first sentence: “Ramon de Lourdes Rios Caceres Solar Benitez Torres de la Parra has endangered our nation. I pray for you, said Our-Lord-Our-God. Berta Teresa Ignacio Montero Montes, you were once a fertile continent, a land replete with natural majesty, a vibrant culture, a spirit humming with vitality and hope.” The imprecation ends with evocations of violence done to women across the continent, a theme that runs through several stories: “Mariela Fernanda Demetrio Posadas Cerda worked in a coffee shop after she was murdered in Honduras. She served coffee to millionaires after she was murdered in Nicaragua—the very same coffee she planted after she was murdered in Panama, but which ultimately never earned her enough to pay the rent she still owed after she was murdered in Puerto Rico.” The imprecation ends with, “These are her Words.”
In a short piece called, “The Object,” the writer and editor Gordon Lish (who famously shepherded the careers of Raymond Carver and Don DeLillo) is openly named as the villain. The narrator travels from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side to see him speak at a bookstore, and is disgusted by his ossified and oblivious perspective and leaves: “All of us are outside the bookstore. Inside is a city that no longer exists. Outside, we can breathe. Inside is anxiety, the fear of a tyrannical white man who watches with horror and rage as the world transforms around him, as if it were the code to some indecipherable science. Outside, space has twisted into folds, a spiral where our very breathing grants it those multiple universes. The city fades away with every block: the city of shortage, poverty, excess, the centripetal force of fantasy, the void where bombs and fish rain down.”
This is Ríos as literature professor; it’s as unsubtle as a warning shot, but an apt metaphor for the work. Her stories are full of students, teachers, academics, writers, and psychoanalysts. With another writer, this could become a stifling, self-referential universe, but “the centripetal force of fantasy,” often in the form of language itself, is transformational in this collection.
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Megin Jiménez is the author of Mongrel Tongue, a collection of prose poems and hybrid texts. Her work has appeared in Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, and other journals. She is a flash fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine and works as an editor and translator for international organizations. Find more of her work at meginjimenez.com